What will get you interested, at first, is sympathy for the character of Tedla, a neuter from Gammadis, which is a planet where neuters are used as slaves and not considered human. The story of its early years on Gammadis and its time on Capella, a planet more like our own, is horrifying and compelling, especially because of the “human” lens through which the portrait has to be viewed. Before the age of 14, when all Gammadians are neuter, the children (proto-humans, or “protos”) passed around rumors like that “eating beans will produce male genes, the bite of a needletail will make you female. There were diagnostic tests: If you looked at your fingernails palm up rather than palm down, you were sure to be a man. Looking over your shoulder to see the sole of your foot was a sure sign of a woman.”
On Capella, the planet I think is most like our own (although a character points out that all people call their planet some variation of “earth”), “knowledge was its principle export, and its only major industry.” Like the country of Gilead in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, the planet of Capella has things in common with our own planet, but they’re obviously far in the future and much more exaggerated–showing where we could be headed. The problem with the knowledge culture is that “the companies need us all to be alienated from each other, because it cuts off routes of communication they can’t control. If everyone shared information openly, it wouldn’t be a controllable commodity, and no one could profit from it.”
Tedla’s story is masterfully told, moving backwards from the point at which it attempts to kill herself, alone on Capella. As it tells stories that reveal the horrors of slavery on Gammadis, we react along with the xenologist to whom she is telling her story, Val. It’s clear that what happens to the neuters, “blands,” as they are called on their own planet, is wrong. Even though Tedla denies that it was a slave– “we weren’t slaves. Neuters are never traded for money”– it’s clear that blands are treated as such, and the details (including torture scenes) are right out of Harriet Beecher Stowe. Told from birth that “blands” are less than human, Tedla believes it, despite growing evidence, as its story continues, that its intelligence is greater than that of the gendered humans whose every whim it must anticipate and gratify.
I keep typing “she” when referring to Tedla, and I think it’s because the reader identifies with this character; I assume that a male reader might stumble over calling Tedla a “he.” There’s another reason I think of “it” as a “she,” though, and that’s the way the humans (both Gammadians and Capellans) want to use it sexually because it is extraordinarily attractive; that makes me think of stories about the lot of beautiful slave women in the American south before the civil war. Tedla is frustrated by the degree to which “we have to think about your sexuality all the time.” She says:
“Some humans–maybe all–are actually attracted by asexuals. Even your standards of beauty tend to be androgynous. I don’t know why it is–the ambiguity of identity, perhaps, or the novelty of a transgender experience. Then there are people who are attracted to anything dangerous.”
“What is dangerous about it?” Val asked.
“On Gammadis, sexual encounters with neuters are absolutely forbidden,” Tedla said. “The idea is horrible, shameful, disgusting. Anyone found molesting a neuter would be ostracized, and penalized by the harshest laws we have.”
“But it’s done?”
“All the time,” Tedla said bitterly. “Everyone condemns it, then they do it anyway. It’s the central hypocrisy of my planet. They all learn not to see it. The only thing more forbidden than doing it, is talking about it.”
“Do you think we deserve to be human?”
“God knows what the test is, if Tedla couldn’t pass it,” Max murmured. “I’m glad we didn’t have to take it.”
“It is not just a matter of poverty, as you seem to think. Here, where people can inherit money, or get it from partners or royalties without earning it, you have many well-to-do blands. But most of them are poor. They live shabby, circumscribed lives–aware of, but never aspiring to, the humanity around them, though they will live off it parasitically if they can. They are the eyes behind all those windows in the housing tower you saw. They take whatever chances others give them. They complain, but not so that you hear them.”
“…I began to understand something about you Capellans. I had always thought–in fact, you always claim–that you are a perfectly secular society. But that’s not true. The feeling you have for knowledge is very close to the awe others feel for the sacred. Faith in knowledge is the principle you will never back away from, the thing you protect when everything else is gone. Creating is your highest calling. Destroying it, or polluting it, is the unforgiveable sin. Learning is your righteousness, research is your sacrament, discovery is your revelation. You believe not in a transcendent God but in a transcendent truth that we all can strive toward through learning.”
You really should read this book! Because the only thing worse than mistreating slaves is shutting yourself off from the feelings of the other humans who share your planet.
This discussion of Carolyn Ives Gilman’s science fiction novel Halfway Human originally appeared at Necromancy Never Pays on Monday, November 1, 2010; it has been edited for a wider audience. I’m glad she shared it here – it sounds like it has some elements in common with The Sparrow, and it’s headed to my wish list.